What does "We're all connected" really mean? Four non-mystical interpretations.
Updated: Dec 19, 2018
Many mystics, sages, and gurus, (not to mention other people who can make scientific-minded folk sigh) have often come to a conclusion that “everything is connected” or “we’re all connected.” It’s also a conclusion that many people who try psychedelics reach.
But for those of us who don’t partake in psychedelics, or who aren’t sages, gurus, mystics, new-age self-help authors, or Douglas Adams’ holistic detective Dirk Gently, it’s difficult to get a read on what “everything is connected” precisely means. On one hand, it’s possible that the insights that are being referred are so abstract and hard to articulate that people result to using metaphors and imprecise language. On the other hand, it’s also possible that the ideas they are working with are, in fact, incorrect or the product of confirmation bias and fooling oneself. Thus any true skeptic would be initially open to the idea there may be interesting concepts buried under imprecise, metaphorical, and perhaps off-putting "hippy" language.
In this post, I am going to focus on possible conceptual interpretations of “everything is connected,” separate from any “feelings of oneness.” (That’s a blog post for another day.) But before I dive into four relatively rigorous, non-mystical interpretations of “we’re all connected / everything’s connected,” I'd like to take a look at what google says it might mean. Aka getting to know the prior art, if you will, which I will take to be the first three google results.
1. The first result is an article entitled “Quantum Mechanics Reveals How We Are All Truly Connected.”
This article is exactly what I expected to be the first hit, and surprise, it generally fails to reveal how we are all truly connected. It contains psychedelic, Buddhistic, “science-like” “art” and a handful of points about how atoms are atoms and further macroscopic distinctions are irrelevant. Though the article strings some ideas together, as you might expect, it doesn’t provide any deep or satisfying explanations; none that I could responsibly quote to you here.
2. The second result is a bizzare mashup of video clips of Richard Feynman, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Carl Sagan using the word “connected” in context. All of these males have been auto-tuned into a semblance of a melody and set to really weird background music. (Pro tip: the video is much more exciting if you watch it at 2x it's normal speed.)
It’s the sort of thing you might naively expect from pro-science young people who once did shrooms, and who are also failed by the current youtube recommendation system, and are looking for some sort of escape to spend time watching.
Hands down, this is the most off-beat and least successful meditation on 21st st century awe and wonderment that I’ve ever seen. Somehow, the video communicates either a) an intellectual recognition of something like “I could be awed right now” or b) a reminder of previous times people felt awe when “contemplating the cosmos.” Sadly, the video doesn’t even accomplish these goals that well.
Also, it’s been watched more than seven million times.
3. The third web-page, from “one-energy-one-mind.com,” has three titles, which is a rather impressive UX/UI feat. The three titles are: “Is Everything Connected?”, “Are we all Connected?” and “ARE WE ALL ONE UNIVERSAL MIND - ONE ENERGY?” Alas, the quality of the UX is slightly better than the content. This web-page is not an article. It’s also not a listicle. It’s a barrage-ical of loosely connected ideas that vaguely hint at "connection."
Provided the reader thinks themselves as open to new ideas, this web-page-thing is a chaos of short sentences and links, one that substitutes the sensation of shifting one’s attention between things one already agrees with for the sensation of gaining insight and becoming wiser. (Sort of, or possibly exactly like cable news, but that’s another story.)
So much for the prior art. You could be forgiven for thinking that the mystical types are making it up. This process isn’t helped by the fact that it’s incredibly easy to fool oneself, even if you’re a “sage.” Also, undoubtedly some people are cynically just trying to make money.
The principle of charity suggests that if there is a point worth considering here, it has perhaps suffered from being terribly explained. Articulating thoughts and experiences is hard enough by itself; in some sense, very few us articulate ourselves that well. Add in the reported difficulty of spiritual insight, and, well, you’d probably get something that looks similar to the state of things now.
On the other hand, I know of four relatively rigorous and non-mystical interpretations of “we’re all connected” or “everything’s connected,” which can provide an interesting counter-point to the type of material I’ve highlighted above. (If you’re curious, I’ve ordered them from least to most interesting, according to none other than me.)
First: Causal Chains
The most boring interpretation of “It’s all connected” or “We’re all connected” is something like “cause and effect exists” and its related cousin “things can (indirectly) affect each other.” The universe we find ourselves in happens to have regular rules that govern physical interactions, and for every situation, we can draw up a long chain of causes that led to it.
Sure, there’s no known way for my sitting and meditating in California to “mystically” affect (nor effect, for that matter) a three-toed sloth in South America. But, maybe sitting and meditating contributes me to be more reflective and recognizing that I should donate to the nature conservancy to buy an acre of the Amazon thus preserving a three-toed sloth’s habitat. By this definition “It’s all connected” means a theoretical connection, that if I go and find the right butterfly and convince it to flap its wings in the right way, then I could start a salami-shortage in France. (Though I’m pretty sure there are some information theoretic limits to the amount of data and precision you’d need to pull this off.)
This conception can also serve as a nice reminder that we are part of "the universe" and vice versa, as we are all involved in many different chains of causes.
However, this version of "It's all connected" is a mere observation about how reality works; perceiving that cause and effect exists is something we start to learn before we learn to speak. Given how obvious this point is, I’d be surprised if it is what's really meant by “it’s all connected.” So, on to the second definition.
Second: Abstract Pattern Matching
“Everything’s connected” can also be used to describe how someone who’s brain is good at pattern matching can learn to perceive the world. A pattern, by definition, is that which is “abstractable” or generalizable beyond the concrete particulars of any given instance of said pattern. For example, no two snowflakes are alike, yet the general pattern of snowflake is one we all can recognize.
If your brain can learn via extracting abstract lessons, then it’s likely that life experiences get folded into each other, and you'll find that most if not all of the dots connect. In other words, for people of a certain orientation, composing music for piano is informed by learning to write, both of which are influenced by how they partner dance, which is also informed by how they tell jokes, etc. I suspect this is true on some level for all of us, but it differs in degree.
What’s interesting is that consciously thinking in terms of an abstract framework isn’t the same as seeing a talk about traditional Hindi dances and being struck by its connection to a wind-ensemble piece you played in high school that was written in response to JFK’s assassination. The former is more intentional (or what I call “willpowered”) than the latter. Notice, that the person who is "struck by" a certain association has seemingly no control over it, and that they will then have to figure out the reason for the connection. In other words, the association doesn’t happen via explicitly verbal processing; instead it happens via abstract pattern matching. It seems like these are two separate skills, both of which can be practiced.
The basic point, however, is that finding connections is not always a 100% conscious, deliberative, explicit effort. (Though perhaps attending to the thing in order to find the connections is.)
Let’s assume that people can be placed on a spectrum that involves this non-will-powered habit of finding abstract connections between things, and this is orthogonal to an orientation towards will-powered-ly and consciously thinking in terms of abstract frameworks. This second dimension would impact the ability to explain and articulate the connections that strike one. Potentially, people who view their life as “all connected” but rely on unusual metaphors to explain why may just operate in one corner of a two-dimensional grid. In other words, a part of their brain is great at finding connections, but another part isn’t great at explaining their experiences using non-metaphorical language.
When compared with the first definition, this conception of “it’s all connected” seems more plausible. It’s certainly less theoretical and a little less obvious. No “if—then” is needed to see how “everything is connected.”
However, this second definition reflects how an individual perceives the world. But the phrase isn't "It's all connected to me." Instead "it’s all connected” presupposes that the world is a certain way; i.e. it seems like an objective statement about reality. So, let’s take a look at a third potential definition.
Third: Goal Alignment
It turns out that as you frame different goals and motivations at increasingly abstract levels, they get more and more aligned. For example, two people competing for resources seems like a case of I win, you lose, zero-sum game goal-opposition. But perhaps they are both trying to “survive” or “win.” On one level, they are competing; on another, they aren’t cooperating per say, but they are pursuing the same goal. Or if most people seem to be doing different things with their lives; there’s a sense that what they are doing gives them meaning, or resonates with them, or that that they are responding optimally to their internal psychic environment. In one fell swoop, you’ve gone from “everybody doing something different” to “everybody doing the same thing generally.”
From these examples, we can extrapolate. It is exceedingly likely that with a sufficiently abstract framing, one can see all living creatures as basically pursuing the same things in different ways. So in some sense, all living things are “connected” in that they are each unique expressions of pursuing identical (albeit abstract) goals, even if we haven’t yet precisely articulated what the ‘thing’ is yet beyond “live” or “make sense of the world” or “learn and grow” etc.*
*(I’ll confess that I’ve spent some time exploring what this abstract goal might be. However, I don’t have the space to argue for that here; it’s also a slightly different point than what I’m trying to make.)
The take away is that if we know that everything is pursuing the same (albeit abstract) goal, well, that’s another way in which "everything is connected."
Fourth: The Never-ending Dance
Lastly, my personal favorite.
If you are sufficiently oriented towards people, you at some point realize that with best friends, with lovers, and with good interlocutors, the ‘conversation’ never actually stops. It just pauses when the two people aren’t in contact. Once built the connection lies dormant for a while, possibly hibernates, but is ready to be picked back up the moment the same two people come into contact with each other.
This is also true of a partner-dance connection as well – does the dance actually stop when the music stops, or does it merely pause after the dance and a short denouement? The answer is “depends on the people involved.” My experience says that if enough of a connection is present, then the dance doesn’t stop.
My point is that if you keep going down this road of pursuing connection, it eventually becomes apparent that “the dance never stops” not only with best friends, but potentially with anybody.
Now, the last piece to this fourth understanding is to dig into what’s meant by “connection.” Is connection “built”? Is it explored? What if “connection” is a thing discovered? If it is discoverable, then there is a potential connection between almost everybody. And if a connection between two people just needs to be unburied, then the right kind of person might think of themselves as a navigator in the invisible web of connection that, wait for it, includes us all. In this sense, if the dance between people never stops, then it’s a matter of debate (and precise definition, I suppose), if the dance ever “starts “ too.
There are at least four different interpretations of what “it’s all connected” means. If you check out this collection of quotes about connection, you’ll find that most, if not all, fit into one of the four definitions I’ve outlined here.
There may be more than the four I've offered here, too. But in the mean time, clearly, the truth of "we're all connected" depends on its definition. For some definitions, it's true!
Note: “Feelings of oneness” will likely be tackled in a later post.